The late summer/early fall of 1997 was a strange and life-changing time for me, for a lot of reasons. I was pregnant with my first child, Chris, who was due to make an appearance in January of 1998. I was also changing jobs, as the job I’d been in for the last five years was coming to an end due to a catclysmic upheaval in the Newfoundland school system. In September 1997 I started teaching English at Beaconsfield Senior High, a position I would hold for only five months before going on the world’s longest maternity leave (in some senses, it still hasn’t ended).
Before that, I’d been teaching English at the St. John’s Seventh-day Adventist Academy — the same school I attended from Kindergarten through high school graduation in 1982; the school both my parents attended. Even some family members of my grandparents’ generation attended the school. To say I and my family had a lot of history with the St. John’s SDA Academy would be an understatement. The baby I was carrying in summer 1997 would not carry on the tradition; our school would no longer exist by the time he started Kindergarten in 2003.
My fellow Seventh-day Adventists will know something about the history and the emotional weight (both good and bad, depending on your experiences) of Adventist education. But you can’t really know what our experience here in Newfoundland was like, because it wasn’t much like anything anywhere else in the world. Adventists have always been big believers in church-run, Christian education for their kids, and in almost every place (at least in North America) this has meant starting small private schools supported by tuition and by the generosity and hard work of the local church, where Adventist kids could get an education without having to rub shoulders with “The World” too much.
Our situation here in Newfoundland was different. At the time the early Adventists decided to start their own school in 1905, the Newfoundland government operated no public schools; almost all schools were run by churches. There were Roman Catholic schools and Anglican schools and Methodist schools and eventually schools run by smaller Christian groups — Salvation Army schools and Pentecostal schools and Seventh-day Adventist schools. Over the twentieth century, this evolved into a system where the government fully funded all these schools — paying for teachers’ salaries and other expenses of running a school system, and establishing a provincial curriculum and government exams for high school graduates — but left most of the day to day running of the schools to the churches. Churches could hire teachers, set their own religious ed curriculum, have whatever religiously-oriented extra-curricular activities they wanted such as chapels and worships, all without charging tuition. All schools were free and open to everyone.
As a result of this, I was educated in a very unique system, unlike either public-school or church-school peers in other places. My education had many of the hallmarks of Adventist education — Adventist teachers, morning worships, Weeks of Prayer, Bible classes. But our student body was never more than about 10-20% Adventist kids. Since there were no tuition fees, anyone and everyone was welcome. The student body was largely kids from the neighbourhood whose parents just sent them to the nearest school — and, over the years, as our neighbourhood became more of a lower-income, centre-city neighbourhood, the student body reflected that. There was also a sizeable contingent of kids from other “non-mainstream” religious groups that weren’t numerous enough to run their own school system but wanted the semi-religious atmosphere of the Adventist school, even though they opted out of Bible classes. When I was in school myself, these were mainly Jehovah’s Witness kids; during the years I taught there that demographic had shifted to Bible Believers and a few Christadelphians.
I went to an Adventist school with Adventist kids and United Church kids and Anglican kids and Jehovah’s Witness kids and agnostic and atheist kids and a sprinkling of Catholics (mostly they stuck to their own large and well-run school system, but occasionally a Catholic kid who’d had a rough time at St. Pat’s or Presentation or wherever would find their way to us). I went to school with a lot of kids whose families were poorer than mine was, and a handful whose families were better off (I had two working parents, so I was definitely in the upper echelon socio-economically). Our school was small by the standards of other schools in St. John’s — my graduating class had 19 students and was the largest in the school’s history — but it was as diverse as St. John’s got in those days.
Look, I don’t want to idealize my old school, much as I loved it. Like any school, there were people who had great experiences there and people who had terrible experiences. Though most of both my classmates and my former students remember the place fondly, it had its flaws. I think of it as a great place to have gone to school despite the fact that I was relentlessly bullied by a clique of Mean Girls for my entire Grade 7 and 8 years. (I was keenly aware that if I had been thrown into a larger junior high, all that would have meant would have been even more Mean Girls to torment me). It was flawed and messy but it was ours. To me, as both a student and a teacher, it provided all the best aspects of attending both a small private Christian school and a neighbourhood public school.
Lots of other people felt the same way. When we saw changes coming during my teaching years in the mid-90s, I and my extended family and most of the other staff there fought as hard as we could to save our school, petitioning the government to make an exception for us.
It didn’t work. By the mid-90s, Newfoundland’s school system was clearly archaic in the context of the rest of Canada. Though our population was not yet very diverse in terms of non-Christian religious, it had become, with the rest of the world, much more secular. The Roman Catholic church and its school system had been shaken to its core, and lost much of its popular support, by a series of sexual abuse scandals. The mainstream Protestant denominations had long since amalgamated their schools — Anglican, United, and Salvation Army — into consolidated schools that were in many ways indistinguishable from public schools. Parents who weren’t religious chafed against having to choose a “religious” school to send their kids to and support it with their taxpayer dollars. Teachers were unhappy with a system in which a teacher at a Catholic or Pentecostal school could lose their job if their personal life wasn’t in line with church teaching. And the government promised that by dismantling the old denominational system, they would eliminate waste and redundancy and save millions of dollars that they could pour into newer, larger, more effective public schools.
It was controversial enough that it required a referendum, and the majority voted to scrap the old system. In June of 1997 I directed our last school drama production (Narnia), taught my last English classes at the old St. John’s SDA Academy, and went where I was re-assigned, to Beaconsfield, a formerly Catholic school that, like all the other big schools, was being reborn as a public school. (More or less. At Beaconsfield, the vice-principal, a former nun, used to read prayer requests for the “repose of the soul” of various dead folks over the PA system during homeroom announcement time. Newfoundland schools were slow to completely secularize, but the administrative trappings of denominational education were gone).
The Adventist school, stripped of the government funding that paid its teachers’ salaries, was slated to close, its students and staff re-assigned to other schools. In fact, it struggled on for five years as a much smaller private school, attended almost entirely by the children of church members. The private school was crippled by the fact that most of those church members were either unable or unwilling to pay tuition fees for something they’d previously been getting for free. The two local Adventist churches, weighed down by the burden of supporting the school, voted to close it in the spring of 2003, just before my eldest child would have started Kindergarten.
My kids grew up going to the Adventist church and the neighbourhood public school. I’m happy with the education they got. As for me, I’ve moved on to other teaching challenges in a different environment. And over the years, I’ve changed my views on a lot of things.
I’ve come to believe that what I and others fought for in 1997 was not only unsustainable but philosophically wrong. I don’t think it’s right for taxpayer funds to support religious, church-run schools. Adventists have always had a strong belief in the separation of church and state, and here in Newfoundland we overlooked that belief for a long time because it enabled our schools to function. Today I believe that allowing government to fund church schools and other religious organizations compromises both sides of the equation: if you want to run a school that teaches and conforms to the beliefs of your religious groups, and excludes other beliefs, then you should be able to raise the money to do that yourself, and not rely on taxpayer funds. Reluctantly, I’ve come to feel that the Newfoundland people made the right decision in that referendum (even though the promised millions of dollars of savings to be poured into schools never quite materialized, as is often the case with government promises).
I say “reluctantly” because I do feel that something of value was lost in 1997, something more than just a place I’m nostalgic about. One thing that I still think was valuable about our unique public-private hybrid was that it allowed smaller schools to flourish with the same government funding as big ones. Even if you take religion out of the equation, this is still inefficient –governments can always save money by putting more and more students into larger and larger institutions. But that doesn’t always best serve the needs of the students.
Bigger schools can and do offer a wider range of courses and of extracurricular activities. My own kids have certainly benefited from that. But a big school is not an ideal environment for every learner. Over the years, many of the students who left other schools to attend the Adventist school, both while I was a student and while I was a teacher, came because they or their parents felt they would learn better in smaller classrooms, with a lower student-teacher ratio and a more “family” feeling to the school community. And it’s no coincidence that after leaving the Adventist school and getting piped into the new public system, I gave up teaching for seven years and only returned to it in a small alternative school outside the regular school system. In the place where I teach now, we have about the same student-teacher ratio, and much the same feeling of community, as we had back in the old Adventist Academy.
I didn’t write this piece to make any particular point, just to mark a milestone for myself and others who loved the old school. I’m not sure what my take-aways are from this. Certainly I’ve discovered that I’m capable of believing something is theoretically wrong, yet recognizing that it had good elements and that I and a lot of others benefited from it. That’s one piece of my nostalgia as I think back to what we lost 20 years ago. Another is that I still believe an ideal school system would not be one-size-fits-all; it would have flexibility. While I don’t believe that flexibility should include paying churches to run schools, I do think it should involve the option of smaller schools, smaller class sizes for those who need them, different learning environments. Bigger is not always better, and what works for the majority doesn’t work for everyone.
Mostly, though, I just miss a place I used to love, even on the days when I didn’t love it. I miss it the way you miss home, a home to which you can never return.